A little piece I wrote in Autumn 2012 for the lovely ezine Slow it Down
Autumn is here already and although in my neck of the woods much of the wild fruit is not as bountiful as last year, there is still a great deal about if you go looking for it. As a forager, October is both one of my busiest and favourite months of the year. On a sunny day, when the light is warm and golden there is nothing nicer than a wander through a favourite nature spot, where the trees are plump and fruitful, a time of plenty before the Winter sets in.
Autumn fruits are packed full of vitamins and flavour. For modern palates which often prefer sweetness to bitter or sour tastes, eaten straight from the tree or bush they can be quite sharp, or, if you have ever popped a raw sloe in your mouth, eye wateringly astringent. Lightly cooking them with a little sweetener draws out the juices and makes the most of their rich and complex flavours.
If you are lucky enough to live by the coast, you may have come across Sea Buckthorn, the orange berries of which seem to be an acquired taste but I found their sour tartness mouth wateringly good and from reading up on their heath benefits they are cram packed full of goodness, an incredible super food. Picking them is a bit tricky – they are surrounded by a thorny armour and not long after they become ripe burst as soon as they are touched and exude bright orange juice everywhere. Holding a bowl underneath them to catch the delicious explosion seems to be the best way of harvesting them!
Gathering Rosehips also involves careful manoeuvring around thorns but they are well worth the effort. A jelly or syrup made from them and spooned over porridge on a cold Winters morning brings an amber glow to the belly and is like a ray of sunshine. All rose hips are edible – the mandarin shaped soft hips of the Rosa rugosa are the first to ripen, with the harder hips of the native dog rose needing a good blast of cold weather to soften them up. Which ever variety you use they need to be minced and sieved very finely (though a jelly bag) to remove the irritating hairy seeds which are in the centre and have pretty much the same effect as itching powder!
Elder trees produce clusters of juicy dark berries which are reputed to be wonderful for treating cold and ‘flu symptoms. They need to be heated gently, as the raw fruits contain toxins which can cause upset stomachs. They also make an incredible Port-like wine and I have a couple of demi johns bubbling away for drinking next Winter.
Crab apples are often ignored because raw they are incredibly sour, though you may come across a ‘wildling’ which will be sweeter (this is a tree which has grown from a pip, not the true crab apple, Malus sylvestris) but when they are cooked and mixed with sugar, alchemy takes place and their flavour is transformed. They are very high in pectins and adding some to jams or jellies will not only taste lovely but also help them to set quickly.
As with all foraging, make sure you leave plenty more than you take. Birds rely on berries and fruits for their winter foods and the jewel like colours in the hedgerows brighten the shortening days
The recipe below is perfect for making the most of whatever fruit is available to you and is suitable for all the fruits above.
Autumn fruit syrup
This will make about one and a half litres of syrup
2kg mixed fruit. eg Crab apples, rosehips, elderberries, seabuckthorn berries, blackberries, damsons. You don’t need to peel or core, just make sure the harder fruits are chopped up
about 500ml water – a little less if you are using mostly juicy berries
Add the harder fruits to the pan first such as the rosehips & crab apples as they will need to cook for a little longer (try about 10 minutes before adding the rest of the fruit) simmer the fruit until it breaks up. Bash it and mash it a bit with a wooden spoon to make sure that all the juice is extracted. Pass everything through a sieve or leave to drip through a jelly bag overnight (use the jelly bag method if you are using rosehips)
Measure the juice and return it to a clean pan. Gently heat and add 750g sugar for every litre of water. Once the sugar has dissolved and the juice begins to simmer take it off the heat – if you allow it to boil too furiously it may set like jelly (I have done this before, it is delicious but you won’t be able to get it out of the bottle easily) pour it straight into hot sterilised bottles. It will keep unopened for a good few months, just pop it into the fridge once you have unscrewed it.
This is delicious made into a drink, drizzled onto pancakes, icecream, porridge or yoghurt and makes my favourite champagne cocktail!